A year abroad in Kazakhstan

Clarissa Rodriguez perfected her Russian and made many friends during a year of study in Almaty, Kazahkstan.

UCLA International Institute, August 22, 2016 — “I fell in love with Almaty from the moment I got off the plane,” says Clarissa Rodriguez (UCLA 2015), a UCLA Russian Flagship Program student who completed her capstone year in Kazakhstan in May. “In my case, I was fortunate enough to not only study Russian at KazNU [Al-Farabi Kazakh National University] with the best language instructors, but also to live with a Russian-speaking host family and intern at two Autism Centers in Almaty where Russian is the primary language,” she adds.

UCLA undergraduates have the option of studying abroad for a summer, a semester or an academic year. Students in the UCLA Russian Flagship Program, however, must complete both a summer and full academic year studying Russian abroad, as well an internship during the yearlong program. Their final capstone year amounts to a full fifth year of undergraduate study beyond the coursework required to graduate from UCLA.

In Clarissa’s case, she ended doing the two programs in sequence, spending from summer 2015 through late spring 2016 in Kazakhstan. In between, she made a quick trip back to Washington, DC, where she joined other winners of the Boren Scholarship and traveled back to Almaty for the 2015–16 academic year. She has since become a Boren Ambassador for the program.

Awarded by the U.S. Defense Department, the scholarships carry the obligation of a year’s (paid) service in the U.S. government. Previously, UCLA Russian Flagship students completed their capstone year at St. Petersburg State University, but tensions with Russia have prompted the Defense Department to direct its Russian language students to Kazakhstan. (The country is a former Soviet republic where Russian is an official language.)

Clarissa (fifth from right) and schoolmates from her KazNU program at Big Almaty Lake.

Walking, conjugating and volunteering

Full immersion in Russian was a whirlwind for Clarissa. “My brain was constantly working in Russian!” she explains. “Whether I was glancing through Russian articles on the internet or catching bits of conversations on the street, I was always asking myself, ‘What case follows that verb? Is it imperfect or perfect tense?’

“Full immersion can be exhausting, but it is by far, the most enjoyable and beneficial aspect of any overseas language program,” she explains. “It took some time — almost an entire year — for me to feel confident in what I say in Russian. Language learning is a process that challenges one to keep learning new things and applying what one has learned. For me, studying Russian has not only allowed me to grow as a person, but also inspired me to think of creative ways to use Russian in my future career.”

Having taken several courses in disability studies at UCLA, Clarissa gained real-world experience — in Russian — while she was in Almaty. She volunteered at one center for autism (Asyl Mira Autism Center) and did an internship at another (“DOM” Center for Children with Autism), all the while carrying a full load of university courses. She spent some 6–8 hours a week assisting teachers in implementing a Russian-translated version of Applied Behavioral Analysis therapy while honing her skills in working with autistic children.

“I also used my Russian language skills and experience with disabilities studies while working with children and their parents, alongside trained professionals and specialists,” she adds. That work included translating a manuscript for a Russian documentary on Autism Spectrum Disorder into English and then voicing the English-language version. (The documentary, produced by researcher Dr. Valdimir Matvievsky in Moscow, will be submitted to the organization Autism Speaks and the BBC this fall.)

Discovering another country

Performing Kazakh songs in traditional clothes. The beautiful headdress is known as a saukele. Living with a host family helped Clarissa improve her Russian, as well as learn about Kazakh culture. “Kazakhstan is a treasure of Central Asia,” she remarks. “It is a culturally rich country with the warmest and most hospitable people. These people take great pride in their traditions and history. We were their ‘guests’ — they opened the doors of their homes to us and shared their stories and dreams with us.”

She particularly enjoyed the many excursions organized by her study program, including trips to Astana (the capital), Turkistan (an historical place of worship for Muslims), Baraboi Lake, Lake Issyk and Great Almaty Lake. Not to mention numerous trips to museums, ancient ruins, the theater, ballet and the opera in Almaty, as well as International Week at the city’s New Economic University. For a young woman who had never been on a plane before going to Almaty, she has returned home a cosmopolitan traveler!

Clarissa is now working as a behavioral therapist with autistic children in both Long Beach and Los Angeles. Asked how she would advise other UCLA students considering whether or not to study abroad, she responded: “Break down the classroom walls and encounter learning through travel! Study abroad is an invaluable opportunity to immerse yourself in a new environment that inspires exploration and understanding of unique cultures, rich languages and diverse ideas.

“As a student,” she continued, “you have a balance between being part of a program that has organized transportation and excursions, while also having time to be on your own and truly savoring the fact that you’re in a different part of the world. So when that plane takes off, leave your fear and insecurities behind and take on a sense of adventure and a dose of optimism! And don't forget to stop by Almaty!”

Friends: The treasure of studying abroad

Looking back over the year she spent in Almaty, Clarissa says it sometimes feels unreal. “I end up asking myself, did it really happen?” she remarks. “Then I hear my phone buzz with WhatsApp messages from my friends back in Almaty and I’m reminded that somewhere out there is a nation that impacted me deeply — that there are Kazakh people who now hold special places in my heart. I loved being surrounded by the beauty of Kazakhstan, but I valued the friendships I made so much more. Despite the 13-hour time difference, I find ways to maintain these relationships.”

Clarissa’s communications with her friends occur almost exclusively via the smartphone application, WhatsApp. “It challenges me to maintain my Russian,” she relates. “For some of my friends, Russian is our way of communicating. So I can say that I value the language more than ever because it connects me to my new friends.”

She met one particularly close friend, a 70-year-old woman named Asel, while sitting by the river doing homework. “[Asel] asked to sit next to me and we started conversing and immediately became great friends!” she recounts. “Her attitude was so refreshing and she was so worldly, so traveled!

“Her positive outlook and sharp mind strengthened my Russian conversation skills and more so, allowed me to understand what life was like for her in Almaty during Soviet times, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and currently,” adds Clarissa. “I miss her more than anyone!”


All photos provided by Ms. Rodriguez.